Need for pooled testing in schools is not disappearing

Vaccines may be here, but the need for COVID-19 testing is not going away any time soon.

That’s the prediction of Tim Rowe, the CEO of CIC Health, a private company that has been overseeing COVID-19 testing programs and also running mass vaccination sites in Massachusetts.

“We are going to have a period of time where not everyone has the vaccine,” Rowe said. “And it’s a little unclear what younger age groups will yet have the vaccine. And we have a world which is going to have storming COVID.” Rowe said the current forecast is it will take four years for the world to reach herd immunity, which means there is the possibility of new virus strains developing in other countries and migrating to the US.

“So if you are a policymaker making a plan for the fall and you want kids in school and you want to get us back to something like the economy that we had prior to the pandemic, you probably want to have in place a system that you know is going to work to track is there disease spreading?” Rowe said. “If it’s spreading, what strains are they? And if there’s a significant population which is not protected by vaccines – and that may be a lot of the kids in this country – you want to make sure that they’re not spreading that disease within society.”

Rowe and CIC Health’s head of pooled testing Bill Jacobson appeared on The Codcast to talk about Massachusetts’ pooled testing programs in schools. CIC Health is one of three companies that provides testing for K-12 public schools under a statewide program. It also provides testing to individuals, private schools, and camps. While testing is slowing down statewide as the virus becomes less prevalent and more adults are getting vaccinated, Rowe and Jacobson said school testing has increased as more schools return to full-time in-person learning.

“This is viewed as a way of making sure that this one part of society, which is not yet fully protected, is not becoming a vector for spread, and really to encourage parents to send their kids back to school,” Rowe said.

According to Jacobson, CIC Health is testing around 50,000 students and staff a week at 500 Massachusetts public schools. The way pooled testing works is a sample is taken through a shallow nose swab, then two to ten samples are combined and sent to the lab. If a lab detects COVID, each person in the pool will be tested individually. If the sample is negative, it’s a quick and cheap way to rule out COVID in several people at once.

Pooled testing at schools and summer camps is paid for entirely by the federal government. Rowe said the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, which processes the tests, charges $50 a test. So with 10 samples in a pooled test, that comes out to $5 a test.

Jacobson said the positivity rate so far has been “quite low” and shows there is not significant transmission within school buildings.  On average, every school gets a positive pool once every five weeks. As of April 5, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education said the rate of positive tests across the entire pooled testing program was 0.8 percent.

Jacobson said the goal is to make COVID testing “a highly efficient system” that takes a couple of minutes out of a student’s school day. “We are imagining that this will continue into the fall and we want there to be a world where there doesn’t need to be a Zoom school along with an in-person school,” Jacobson said. “So having a highly efficient assurance testing plan is a way to make sure that even if different strains or different items happen that we just can’t foresee, we’ll be able to detect them and take some action depending on whatever the future brings.”




One big police commissioner mess: Acting Mayor Kim Janey released a report raising serious concerns about Boston Police Commissioner Dennis White, who was placed on leave just days after his appointment amid reports of domestic abuse against his then-wife in 1999. The report documented another complaint against White, and also said many police officials refused to cooperate with the current investigation into White, prompting Janey to decry the “blue wall of silence.” White is suing the city to block his termination. Read more.

And then it gets even messier: The administration of former Boston mayor Marty Walsh canceled the investigation into the appointment of Dennis White as police commissioner shortly after it began, raising questions about Walsh’s motives. Walsh, through a spokesman at the US Department of Labor, said he was only trying to resolve the problems with the hire before he left for Washington. He says he green-lighted restarting the investigation after it became clear a quick decision was not possible. There is an alternative view — Walsh was trying to shut it down prematurely in a bid to reinstate White quickly before heading down to DC. Read more

Hotline for abusers: A new helpline being launched as a pilot program by organizers in Western Massachusetts aims to be the first helpline in the United States for people who abuse others – and the family members and friends who want to help them change. Read more.


  • 3 steps toward racially just policing: Christine Cole, executive director of the Crime and Justice Institute, says police and law enforcement must commit to changing attitudes, changing behavior, changing norms, and embracing neighbors. Read more.
  • Second time’s a charm: Sen. John Keenan of Quincy says the Food and Drug Administration can’t back down to big tobacco this time and should ban menthol cigarettes — the way Massachusett did. Read more.
  • False solution: Phillip Duffy of the Woodwell Climate Research Center and Alexander Rabin of the Tufts University Medical School say burning biomass to produce electricity has been considered “clean energy” for far too long. Read more.




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Activists renew their call for the closure of the Bristol County facility holding Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainees. (Southcoast Today